A Blast On Broadway

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October 1, 2010 · Posted in Commentary 

By Lionel Rolfe, Nigey Lennon & Paul Greenstein

This is a chapter from “Bread And Hyacinths: The Rise and Fall of Utopian Los Angeles,” specifically about the bombing of the Los Angeles Times in 1910. The book is available on Amazon’s Kindle Store for iPhones, iPads, Kindles, personal computers and the like. The Times was demolished Oct. 1, 1910. This event of a century ago had a profound impact on Los Angeles and the entire country. So over the next year, Public Works Improvisational Theater is creating a series of collaborative arts projects with input from many artists. Through the singing of ballads, dramas, speeches, words, music and the visual arts, we want to bring that time back to people so they will understand the times we live in now. Thus, this Oct. 1, 2010, we will kick off our year long celebration with drama, literature and music at Wordspace in the Atwater District of Los Angeles at 3191 Casitas Avenue, unit 156, at 7:30 p.m. An exact date has not been established for an even larger event at the historic Alexandria Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, 501 S. Spring St. You can follow and communicate with us on Facebook at “TIMES BOMB” or at http://www.publicworksimprov.com/.

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At 1:07 A.M. on October 1, 1910, there was a rumble deep within the earth and an eerie orange-black glow filled the sky over First Street and Broadway in the heart of Los Angeles’s business district. With a great cacophony of sirens and bells, every fire unit in the city converged on the corner where the six-story Los Angeles Times building, the apple of General Otis’s eye, was aflame from its stone foundation to the predatory eagle on the summit of its roof.

The whole town turned out to watch. A crowd of gawkers from the hotels nearby, awakened by the police whistles and fire bells, staggered out onto the sidewalks, some still in their nightclothes. Much of the mood of the crowd was initially jubilant, because Otis was not well loved by the town’s working folks. But as wives of the Times employees stood helplessly watching their husbands’ funeral pyre, the initial reaction faded. Lawyers, businessmen, laboring men – many in a state of shock and some only half-dressed – all stood staring up dumbly as the flames billowed from the fortress-like walls of the Times building. Some hardy bystanders tried to rescue those trapped inside, many of whose despairing cries could be faintly heard through the thick stone walls. Fire crews made attempts to save lives with ladders and nets. A group of would-be rescuers, carrying flashlights and wearing handkerchiefs over their faces, went in trying to locate survivors, but a wall of blistering hot smoke and the licking tongues of the flames quickly pushed them back.

At the time of the initial explosion, lead forms were being cinched up, and sent across “Ink Alley,” which separated the first-floor stereotyping and press rooms. In the ensuing holocaust, the presses and other machinery crashed through the floors as supports and walls gave way. Men and linotype machines were hurled into the air and slammed against the walls with equal ease. Metal was flying wildly in all directions like shrapnel, and huge rolls of newsprint were hurled through the air. Those who tried to escape from the second and third stories fled to higher floors. They were immediately consumed in the conflagration around the rear of the building. In other parts of the structure, a few desperately brave souls managed to escape by jumping from windows as high as three stories above the street, suffering non-fatal head and limb injuries. Many victims died in elevators, trying to reach the ground floor. One man appeared at a high window, stood on the ledge, and then fell back into the inferno.

Over 100 people had been busy inside the building getting out the next morning’s edition, which would have started coming off the presses in another hour, and most of these escaped. But 20 men, including J.W. Reaver, Harry Chandler’s secretary who occupied the desk next to his boss and was working late that night, were killed.

By mid-morning a new edition of the Times was on the streets, with a headline screaming “Unionist Bombs Wreck The Times.” The paper had been published in a nearby satellite plant in the 600 block of Spring Street.

Said the Times article: “The bombs were planted by experienced hands. They did the work for which they were intended, at least temporarily, to cripple a great newspaper… . The murderers had planned with hellish cunning. The broad stairways were filled with deadly smoke almost as soon as the echo of the dynamite bomb had died away. The building was on fire on every side.”

Almost as quickly, unionists were suggesting that Otis had had a hand in blowing up his own building. For one thing, Ink Alley, where the dynamite was supposedly planted, was in direct view of police headquarters – at a time when bomb scares and threats were the order of the day. The notion of some radical with a bomb tucked under his arm, slipping unseen into Ink Alley, strained credibility. If somebody did get down that alley without being spotted by the cops, it might well have been by design. More to the point, Otis’s building was unsafe because of leaky gas, said the unionists. They pointed out that on the night of the explosion at least one window of the building was opened because the smell of the gas leaks was so powerful – it is not clear if the rest were closed, and if so, why.

One Times reporter was quoted in the Examiner the next day as declaring right after the explosion, “There’s going to be hell to pay for this. The gas has been terrible all night. Everybody noticed it.” In the months previous to the explosion, Fire Commissioner Ben Robinson had been trying to instigate an investigation of the Times building, saying that it was dangerous because of the persistent smell of gas there. But because Robinson was also a member of the typographers union (which was the original union chased out of the Times by Otis in 1884), no one took his charges seriously enough to investigate them. Nonetheless, one man had actually been hospitalized from the excess gas fumes in Otis’s building on the day of the explosion.

The unionists argued that the cause of the explosion could not have been dynamite, because most of the windows survived in the building’s blackened skeleton until the heat became too intense, and only then did they melt, shatter, and fall away. They in effect were saying that the destruction to the building was not caused by dynamite. “If sufficient dynamite had exploded to blow up that building, every window for three blocks would have been broken, and not a soul in the basement would have come out alive. Any person may go and see that the floor of the basement directly beneath where the dynamite had been placed shows no effect of the downward action of dynamite. Windows directly across the street were unbroken,” said the Citizen, the voice of Los Angeles labor. In fact, two men were standing directly beneath the spot where the explosion occurred, and neither one of them was killed instantly by the dynamite. The man who did perish was killed when he tried to get out of the fire and was crushed by a falling wall. The other survived. This suggests that there was not much dynamite involved in the initial blasts.

The horse-drawn fire trucks had come clanging along with the crowds within minutes of the explosion, but the intensity of the flames was such there was little they could do. The fire was left to burn itself out, and all that was left by dawn was the skeleton of the building, with Otis’s predatory eagle still standing guard on the topmost peak of the roof.

The Times that morning reported that the initial blast had the “dry, snappy” sound of dynamite. After that there was another blast, and then a whole series of blasts, probably from the highly inflammable ink barrels in Ink Alley blowing up.

As much as a week later, charred bodies were still being found in the wreckage of the Los Angeles Times building. Initially, the area around First and Broadway was shut off by police, who feared, according to the Times, a riot by unionists, but “the cowards and murderers were gone.”

The unionists were quick to point out that on the night of the explosion, Otis himself had been out of town, returning by train from Mexico where he had been tending to his business interests. His son-in-law, Harry Chandler, was almost always was on the premises at that hour – in fact, he usually stayed there until two or three in the morning, waiting until the paper was out. On this night, however, he had gone home early, just a little before the explosion. When the explosion occurred, he happened to be on the street not far from the building.

Years later Chandler would tell the Saturday Evening Post about how that particular night he had gone home for dinner and Mrs. Chandler had insisted that he spend a little time with her. He pleaded that he had too much important work to do, but agreed that the moment she was done at the theater, she should call him and he would drop everything and rush home. When she called, he wound up lingering over his work, so she came down to the office to get him. That was 18 minutes after midnight and, according to Chandler, they both left the building just minutes before the bomb went off at ten to one.

The day after the blast, a bomb was found outside Otis’s estate, the Bivouac, at Wilshire Place and Park View Avenue. An identical explosive device was also discovered at the home of Felix J. Zeehandelaar of the Merchants and Manufacturers Association, who lived at 830 Garland Avenue. Los Angeles Police Department detective Tom Rico was, as has been mentioned, the one who “found” the bombs. Rico was the corrupt cop who had nailed Flores Magon, and in recent months he had “discovered” – unionists say planted – bombs at numerous construction sites that were the scenes of labor strife. The circumstances of that day’s discoveries certainly were suspicious. The police had essentially gotten together a bunch of reporters and said, “Let’s go find some bombs.” Their first stop was Zeehandelaar’s house, where the police observed, “Oh, look, here’s a bomb. Let’s go to Otis’s house.” As they drove up to Otis’s house, lo and behold there was someone disappearing around the bushes on the side of the building, and the cops said, “Oh, there’s another bomb, let’s throw it in the street and it will blow up.”

As blatant a manipulation as was the discovery of the bombs, it was enough evidence to cause the Los Angeles Examiner, which had built its blue-collar readership by being initially very pro-union, to join in the antiunion hysteria. Besides, by the time of the explosion, the Examiner’s proprietor, William Randolph Hearst, was no longer planning on becoming U.S. President. He contented himself with empire and castle building, his radical phase safely put behind him. So the first morning after the Times fire, the Examiner’s headlines echoed the Times’s charge that the building had been dynamited, although it was tempered by a “Statement by Telegrapher that Building was Full of Gas.”

In retrospect, the discovery of two bombs the day after the bombing seemed contrived – especially in “Otistown,” a place that was operated as a virtual fiefdom at this point. When Hearst found his true political soul, he was really little different than Otis. Like Otis and the Times, the Examiner also called for martial law if necessary to defeat the unions, using the discovery of the bombs to ignore the union’s argument about the cause of the Times explosion.

Otis heard of the events of October first when Chandler wired him, the telegram reaching him in El Paso en route from Mexico. He responded by unleashing a thundering blast of his own from the editorial page, aimed at the destroyers of the Times building. Without benefit of evidence, Otis was, in effect, convicting the labor unions of murdering the 20 Times employees who had died in the conflagration. “O you anarchic scum,” he wrote, “you cowardly murderers, you leeches upon honest labor, you midnight assassins, you whose hands are dripping with the innocent blood of your victims, you against whom the wails of poor widows and the cries of fatherless children are ascending to the Great White Throne, go, mingle with the crowd on the street corners, look upon the crumbled and blackened walls, look at the ruins wherein are buried the calcined remains of those whom you murdered… .”

In their press and through their spokesmen, labor and the socialists were quick to reply by noting that the bigwigs of the Times had all escaped the blast. Neither Otis nor Chandler were on the spot, nor were any of the other top Times executives. Otis, it was pointed out, had spent little to improve his building since 1901; instead of maintaining the old plant, which was increasingly becoming a fire trap because of its faulty gas system, he was having plans drawn up for an entirely new facility. Moreover, all the important business papers had been removed from the old building to the auxiliary plant that he had built. And only shortly before the explosion, according to Morrow Mayo in his book Los Angeles, Otis had raised the insurance on the old building.

Few thought that Otis’s hands were clean in the affair. And the General was astute enough to know that public opinion had been turning against him. A considerable percentage of the public already regarded Otis as an unlikable scoundrel capable of any dastardly deed if it would further his crusade against labor.

Job Harriman imposed himself on the scene at this point as investigator of the destruction. As the lawyer for the Central Labor Council, he was already defending two metal trades unionists, A.B. Maple and H. B. Connors, accused of planting dynamite in the Hall of Records building then under construction by the anti-union Lewellyn Iron Works. Police had linked both men to sticks of dynamite left at the site earlier the same year. The County Grand Jury indicted Maple, Connors and F. Ira Bender, president of the Los Angeles International Brotherhood of Blacksmiths. Harriman defended all three, and eventually they were found innocent in 1912.

On the Times explosion, Harriman’s finding was that the leaking gas was the cause of the destruction. He recommended that Otis be prosecuted for “criminal negligence” and for unjustly accusing labor of heinous crimes.

The unionists’ theory was not implausible. The amount of dynamite that was set off in Ink Alley was not enough to do more than blow out a wall. Only nine sticks of dynamite were attached to a timer in a suitcase that was placed there; it was about the same size bomb as the one that the police later “discovered” at Zeehandelaar’s residence – not a big enough bomb to blow up a building the size of the Times. It seemed more intended as a warning, in the same way that bombs had been exploded late at night on more than a hundred construction sites across the nation. Besides, there was certainly enough circumstantial evidence to suggest that Otis and Chandler had some idea of what was coming.

In the Hollywood cemetery where Otis’s remains were finally deposited in 1917, he erected a rugged stone monument under another of his beloved eagles, intended to immortalize the 20 men killed in the destruction.

The inscription on the stone, beside the names of the deceased, included these words: “This imposing pile, reared by the Los Angeles Times, stands here to perpetuate the names, the virtues and the memories of those Honored Dead who in life toiled in the ranks of the journal on which they served so long and so well, and who fell at their posts in the Times Building the morning of October 1, 1910 – victims of conspiracy, dynamite and fire: The Crime of the Century.”

Still, in the end, Otis gained far more than he lost from the great blast which jolted the city early that October morning. And even today, his own “imposing pile” over the plot of grass where his body is buried, is considerably taller than the monument he had ordered for the unfortunate 20.

 

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